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Wanted: more action and less hot air

In the "Year of Sustainability" every area of Gulf society must play their part now

Girl holding a sign calling for sustainability action in the Gulf Jacob Lund/Shutterstock
We need more action and less talk in the 'Year of Sustainability'

Every day, it seems there is another regional Gulf event or webinar pinned on “sustainability”.

In many ways, this is to be expected. We are living in the “Year of Sustainability”, and the UAE will be hosting Cop28 at the end of November.

There’s an expectation that sustainability is top of the agenda, for both government and businesses. 

While I’d usually welcome anything and everything green, I’d hope for more action and less talk. Why? Well, let’s look at the facts.

We live in a region that had the highest ecological footprint per person in 2021 –Statista data shows Qatar emitted 35.59 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide per person, compared with New Zealand, who ranked as the lowest emitter per capita at 6.59.

The GCC’s six countries are all in the top 10 on the list.  

There are few obvious reasons why companies should think of becoming more sustainable: there’s little public pressure, few governmental regulations, and it’s cheaper to buy virgin materials than recycled alternatives.

What happens, far too often for my liking, is regional organisations make unsubstantiated sustainability claims. These are not challenged enough here in the Gulf, but can be – and increasingly are being – legally struck down in regions like Europe.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

We have pioneers of our own across the region, with the likes of Sharjah’s Bee’ah seeing value in waste and sustainability.

Founded in 2007, it is a paradigm of how firms here can realise opportunity in areas such as renewable energy, green transportation and waste management.

Top-level initiatives

Another example is the Saudi Green Initiative, a national project that seeks to boost clean energy usage and reduce carbon emissions.

If the Gulf is to set an example, it must be through action. And each area of our society must play its part.

Let us begin with governments. The region’s authorities have numerous tools, including policy interventions and financing measures to support a drive towards industries becoming lower carbon, promoting energy efficiency in our buildings and transportation, and tackling environmental pollution.

In Europe, a carrot-and-stick approach is proving successful, with emissions-focused regulations and environmental standards, green taxes on polluters and tax breaks for firms who are making progress in cutting emissions.

Funding is another play, with loans and grants being made available for investment in green areas such as energy efficient buildings, renewable energy, and clean transportation, like electric vehicle infrastructure. 

Corporate responsibility

Businesses are crucial to reducing carbon emissions. The best performing companies are already integrating sustainability into their business models and are investing in ways and means to optimise how they use energy, water and other resources.

They engage with stakeholders and set ambitious long-term targets that are linked to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

And according to the research, consumers prefer brands that put sustainability at the forefront of their values. For example, in a 2020 McKinsey US consumer sentiment survey, over 60 percent of respondents said they would pay more for a product with sustainable packaging.

Unilever, for instance, launched its Sustainable Living Plan over a decade ago. It committed to reducing greenhouse gasses, water, waste and packaging, as well as improving sourcing from sustainable supply chains.

Over that period, it reduced costs by more than a billion dollars while growing its most sustainable brands faster than the rest of the business (46 percent as of 2018). In turn, the company’s most sustainable brands delivered 70 percent of its turnover growth as of 2018.

Leadership argued that climate change would cost the company millions, and that the focus on sustainability wasn’t just a nice-to-have, but fundamental.

Unilever also realised that it needed to work with suppliers, governments and even consumers to amplify its actions and make them long term.

Both governments and businesses need to work to clear emissions reduction targets and spell out specific actions they will take to hit these goals. Measurement is key, with regular check-ins on what is working and what needs to be tweaked. 

Finally, there’s the public. We can embed sustainability into our actions – think reduce, recycle and reuse – while also asking questions of the companies that we buy from.

Education is central, and it is fundamental for us and our governments to begin teaching our children why sustainability matters. 

Given we live in one of the world’s hottest regions, where temperatures are increasingly hitting 50 degrees Celsius in the summer, we don’t have the luxury of time.

Let’s make this and every year a year for sustainability, where we all focus on the one green goal of keeping climate change below 1.5 degrees. More action, less hot air please.

Alex Malouf is a marketing communications executive based in the Middle East

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